On Youth, Love and Jonas Kaufmann’s recording of Die schoene Muellerin
If you’re a human being between the ages of roughly 7 and 119, then chances are you’ve had a crush on someone. YourÂ adolescenceÂ might have been the stage on which that drama (or melodrama) played out, and you might have sipped that volatileÂ cocktail ofÂ excitement, hope, and – depending on how things turned out – embarrassment, jealousy and sorrow. Ah, the roller coaster that is young love.
Franz Schubert knew all about this stuff, if onlyÂ by reading the painfulÂ narrative of unrequited love in Wilhelm MÃ¼ller’s poetry cycle Die schÃ¶ne MÃ¼llerin, which the composer set to music in his monumental Lieder cycle of the same title. Schubert’s Die schÃ¶ne MÃ¼llerin tells the tale of a youngÂ wanderer (that most Romantic of misfits)Â who comes upon a mill and becomes infatuated with a young miller-maid, the cycle’s title character. Her pulse beats only weakly for him. Thus distanced from her, the young man sings his heart out to the brook that powers the mill, marveling over the young lady’s beauty, bursting with excitement that she could someday be his, lashing out in pain and frustration on learning she prefers another and, finally, ending it all in the receptiveÂ ripples of his only companion.
DoesÂ such a raw andÂ relentless love happen in the world of the mature adult?Â Certainly. But the unbridled emotionÂ of Schubert’s millhand is the province of one not burdened by self-control. It is obsession of the type only a Catherine Earnshaw could grasp, and as such,Â itÂ takesÂ a hapless youth on a journey from which he can never return.
One of the challenges facing singers who perform of Schubert’s great song cycle is using a mature voiceÂ to convince the listener of the protagonist’s youthfulness and total vulnerability toÂ desire. Needless to say, Die schÃ¶ne MÃ¼llerinÂ isn’t boy soprano fodder. Countertenors perform it, but so do tenors (for whomÂ it was composed)Â and baritones. (We’ll omit female-voice performances from our discussion.)Â The Schubert Institute (UK)Â (SIUK)Â lists 181 recordings of Die schÃ¶ne MÃ¼llerin in what it terms the work’s complete discography. It’s possible that recordings of the work will continue to be made forever as artists continue to tackle the challenge of breathing realÂ life intoÂ our anti-hero so that we are all the more deeply moved when that life ends.
Not on the SIUK’s Die schÃ¶ne MÃ¼llerin database, however, isÂ the most recent commercial recording of the cycle, in which tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch attempt to climb this parnassus. Is it fair to say that the challenge of this work is by and large issued to the singer?Â TheÂ piano (or more rightly stated, the pianist) can make or break any LiederÂ performance. But for our discussion of what it takes to make ourÂ wandererÂ sound very young, we’ll go a weeÂ bit heavy on the singer.Â Kaufmann and Deutsch did just that in the interview with musician and music commentator Thomas Voigt transcribed in the booklet accompanying their recording. When asked why he chose to record Die schÃ¶ne MÃ¼llerin rather than Winterreise, Kaufmann, then recently 40, said he wanted to record the cycle “before it was too late,” calling the work “the Lieder cycle that most clearly calls for a young voice–as well as a young soul.” Deutsch went even a step further. Voigt asked whether “a mature baritone” or a soprano would be able to “do justice” to the cycle. “With all due respect to the famous baritones who have given us significant recordings of Die schÃ¶ne MÃ¼llerin,” Deutsch replied, “the cycle was written for a tenor, and if you have to transpose it, the whole character is altered.”
That means Dieskau’s out, as are, I guess, Matthias Goerne, Bo Skovhus, HÃ¥kan HagegÃ¥rd and other baritones who ventured onto the higher ground of the tenor repertory.Â That means bass-baritones are surely right out. And, again, let’s not discuss the sopranos. All of this brings me finally to Kaufmann’s recording. How close did he come to making the cycle’s “poetic I” a believable youth? The recording is sublime,Â and though Kaufmann’sÂ powerful tenor voice arguably has latent Heldentenor tendencies, he accesses “youthful” and “brokenhearted” through a stunningÂ coloristic range. Let’sÂ explore a few examples from his recording.
By the time we reachÂ MorgengruÎ² (“Morning Greeting”), the cycle’s eighth song, the wanderer has come upon his brook andÂ his mill and has fallen in love withÂ the miller-maid.Â This song is an imagined “morning serenade,” in which he tries to lure his beloved out of the house and into the world with him. Kaufmann’s deep tenor at the song’s beginning has a Siegfried-like confidence, passionate and full. Not the voiceÂ one might imagineÂ forÂ an ill-matched,Â unrequited lover, but stunning nonetheless:
In Der JÃ¤ger (“The Hunter”) we meet the interloper who steals the wanderer’s beloved. Here, Kaufmann’sÂ manly voice isÂ a powerfulÂ expression of masculine possessiveness. And as the wanderer orders the hunterÂ back to the forestÂ to kill the boars he says distress the miller-maid, the depth of Kaufmann’s sound transforms the wanderer’s dismissal tactic into aÂ richÂ pathetic irony: his voice suggestsÂ the wandererÂ is a matureÂ man, not a youth,Â but the wanderer himself – no hunter and no hero – sends a braver man to kill the pigs:
Two songs later, in Die liebe Farbe (“The Beloved Color”), the wanderer sinks into denial, believing (though not really believing)Â it is the miller-maid’sÂ affinity for the color green that arouses her desire to hunt in the forest. He vows to embody that greenness and go hunting with his beloved. But ultimately he envisions being buried in a grave covered with green turf. Kaufmann plumbs the depths of the wanderer’s aching soul, giving his macabre fantasy the weight of reality:
Â And to thatÂ green grave the wanderer takes only dessicated flowers in Trockne Blumen (“Withered Flowers”). He sings Trockne Blumen to the flowers (he only dreams?) his beloved gave him. Kaufmann drains the life from his voice in a tone at once resigned and naive:
With a vocal sound as close to perfection as Kaufmann’s, what more, then,Â should we long for for Die schÃ¶ne MÃ¼llerin? Let’s return to our (or at least Kaufmann’s)Â objective: a youthful-sounding protagonist. I, for one,Â do not agree that when it comes to Die schÃ¶ne MÃ¼llerin, non-tenors need not apply. And I wonder whether the willful suspension of disbeliefÂ has been given an important enough seat at the table in the discourse on the need for a young-sounding voice for this cycle.Â Yes,Â Kaufmann’s voice has thicker hues than some other tenors’ and is not always entirely reminiscent of a love-sick youth. But still, heÂ convinces meÂ ofÂ the wanderer’s unstable nature. Kauffmann’sÂ MÃ¼llerin is sublime. Â Though I must admit,Â IÂ crave hisÂ Winterreise.
- Jennifer Hambrick